No one, however well he may understand the decline in the power of mobs, swing to the introduction of quick-firing rifles, and the amazing improvements in artillery, ever quite rids himself of the impression that in Paris a riot may end in a rising, a rising in a revolution, a revolution in one of those bursts across the frontier by which excited France has so often relieved the surcharge of blood in her head.
~ The Spectator
July 8th, 1893
They were revolutionary times in Paris. At a little bit before six o’clock on the evening of Friday, July 7th, 1893, Mlle de Saint-Sauveur took to the cement track of the vélodrome Buffalo and set about establishing the first unpaced Hour record to be set by a woman.
It was a time of upheaval and unrest in the City of Lights, Henri Guillaume’s second annual Bal des Quat’z’Arts – and the decency or indecency of clothing worn or not worn by some present – having led to riots, as the Spectator’s report explains:
They began in a student row. The art students had given, as they do every year, a ball, which is a great deal too much after classical fashions to be tolerated by moralists; and the police, having recently been cautioned that license has gone far enough, and threatens the character of the Republic, interfered. The students protested that as their ball was held in a private house, the police had exceeded their functions; and though the Magistrate decided against them, and fined their managing committee, they arranged a demonstration against M. Lozd, the Prefect, which speedily grew into a riot. During a scrimmage of the ordinary kind, the students yelling and the police charging, a policeman unfortunately killed a student named Nuger by a blow on the neck with a porcelain match-box, which was shattered, and cut an artery.
On the Monday and Tuesday following Nuger’s death - just days before De Saint-Sauveur took to the track of the Buffalo - police and rioters clashed “with such fury that the hospitals are full of the wounded.” The police were in danger of losing control of the situation, and the city with it.
Fortunately M. Dupuy, the nearly unknown gentleman who is just now Premier in France, is a man of decision and nerve, and he did the only thing which in such cases is at once merciful and sure to succeed. He called out the garrison of Paris in overwhelming force – it includes, it is said, five thousand cavalry – and directed that rioters should be put down with military rigour. All the dangerous points were occupied by soldiers; with every separate division a trumpeter was stationed to give the three summonses which in French law must precede military action; and the mobs, quite aware that the Government had made up its mind, and that they could not resist regulars fighting as in a campaign, sullenly dispersed. By Friday, Paris was orderly again; but it is said that many hundreds of wounded men are in hospital, the bitterness of the disorderly and fanatical classes against the police is excessive, and it is doubtful whether the Government, which must defend the police, or next time they will not act, will on Monday escape censure.
It was perhaps understandable, then, that Henry Duncan’s Buffalo was not full to watch De Saint-Sauveur make history, even across town in Neuilly-sur-Seine, several kilometres away from the now-quietened unrest in the Latin Quarter.
The correspondent for the Parisian daily L’Écho de Paris, which reported De Saint-Sauveur’s ride in some detail, made reference to the unrest with a passing comment on the white flannel suit worn by De Saint-Sauveur:
If the amiable president who directed the debates of the Bal des Quat’z’Arts would have been there he would have said with bitterness; the indecency of this costume is in fact emphasized by the black saddle that I dare not see.
For his own part, L’Écho’s correspondent thought De Saint-Sauveur’s clothing quite simple and left his commentary on attire there.
The record attempt was described as being somewhat monotonous. This should not be taken as a direct criticism of De Saint-Sauveur. Rather it refers to the fact that she was on the track alone for the event’s sixty minutes, at a time when most all races were paced. With other paced Hour attempts – such as the successful attempts on the men’s paced record by Henri Fournier and Jules Dubois in the Buffalo shortly after it had opened the year before – you weren’t just watching one person riding round and round and round the track, you had the different pacers coming in and dropping out. The choreography of the change-overs helped alleviate the monotony of one rider, one bike, and one hour of effort. Monotony which today we relieve with tailored playlists and over-excited commentators. Plus, of course, when it came to paced racing there was always the danger of a crash during a changeover (as happened, for example, to the English rider Herbert Cortis during one of his attempts on the paced Hour record, his pacers crashing in front of him and he going over the top ).
De Saint-Sauveur’s ride did not produce any crashes. But it was not without incident. Three times her progress was arrested. The first, when she punctured and had to change bikes. The second, when her belt became uncomfortable and she had to slow in order to loosen it. (In one of Dion Beukeboom’s preparation rides for his recent failed assault on the men’s Hour record, the Dutchman was forced to stop, his skin-suit having become too uncomfortable to proceed: such clothing mishaps can happen to anyone.) The final time was when De Saint-Sauveur needed to take on a drink – unlike the 28-year-old Henri Desgrange who, eight weeks before, had carried a bidon of milk on his handlebars when setting his unpaced Hour record, De Saint-Sauveur had not foreseen that she might need to rehydrate during the ride.
At the end of sixty minutes a pistol cracked and De Saint-Sauveur had covered 26.012 kilometres. As L’Écho’s correspondent wrote, “pas mal, hein?”
Over the course of the next four years the women’s Hour record blossomed and bloomed. The unpaced record was broken and reset three times, while ten new records were recorded for the paced version of the challenge. Fourteen records in the space of fifty-two months, with six different women inscribing their names on the record books while a half dozen or more tried and failed, or talked up their chances of a successful attempt.
|Vélodrome des Glacis,
|Vélodrome du Parc,
|Vélodrome du Parc,
|A Le Gall
|Women’s Hour Record, 1893-1897
Where had it begun, where had this sudden French flowering of women’s bicycle racing come from?
The immediate antecedent appears to have been a race organised by L’Écho de Paris about three weeks prior to that first Hour record. The Course Vélocipédiques d’Artistes. Actually, it was two races, the Courses des Artistes, one for the men, one for the women, all the competitors drawn from the French capital’s entertainment industry, leading the American cycling journals to refer to the event as the Stagers’ Race. Those stars drew an impressive crowd of spectators: five thousand, if the claims of the organising journal are to be believed. And that in spite of a strike by the cab drivers making the trek out to the Bois de Boulogne, where the racing began and ended, all the more difficult for some. Nor was it bad for a midweek event, the racing taking place on the afternoon of Wednesday, June 14th.
(As a result of the cab drivers’ strike, one enterprising bike seller proposed putting one thousand bikes on the city’s most busy streets and hiring them out to the public at 50 centimes an hour – his suggestion was a bit ahead of its time and was not taken up by those in authority.)
The women’s Course d’Artistes went from the Cascade in the Bois de Boulogne out to the bridge at Saint-Cloud and then back to Longchamp, a distance of eight kilometres or so. Of the eleven women who started, ten finished (the one DNF fell shortly before the finish). At the end, it was De Saint-Sauveur who got home first, in a time of fourteen minutes and thirty seconds, accompanied by her pacers, named as Reulos and Lamberjack, two members of the Société Vélocipédique Métropolitaine whose names occasionally appeared in race results in the cycling press at that time.
|Course d’Artistes organised by L’Écho de Paris
Wednesday, June 14, 1893
|Théâtre des Nouveautés
|Jeanne de Brémont
|Opéra de Paris
|Théâtre des Nouveautés
|Madeleine de Mongey
|Théâtre des Nouveautés
|Opéra de Paris
|Théâtre du Vaudeville
|Opéra de Paris
What do we know about our victor, De Saint-Sauveur? Very little. We know that she had been a performer in Charles Zidler’s Hippodrome, on the Pont de l’Alma, which closed its doors in 1892. Reports of her Hour record in American, British, and Australian newspapers say she was a well-known circus rider. The image that calls to mind of sawdust and greasepaint à la Chagall is probably wide of the mark. As its name suggests, the Hippodrome featured various horse-themed entertainments and so De Saint-Sauveur could more correctly be said to have been an écuyère, a horse rider, performing in a variety of roles.
What else do we know? A few sketches and photographs of her exist. We know of her results from a few races in 1893. Before that, after that ... it’s largely blank. We don’t even know if De Saint-Sauveur was her real name or just a stage name she adopted in the Hippodrome.
We do know that, in June 1894 the engagement was announced of a Mlle de Saint-Sauveur and Eugène Schneider II, of the French steel dynasty and later to be connected with the French bank Crédit Lyonnais, whose cuddly lions are today given out at the Tour de France. The wedding took place in Paris in August. If the two women are the same then this makes Mlle de Saint-Sauveur Antoinette Marie Edmonde de Rafélis de Saint-Sauveur, born in 1875 to a French noble family that fell on hard times when, in 1884, the father – the Marquis de Saint-Sauveur – committed suicide after running up debts partying and gambling. If the two women are the same – if our De Saint-Sauveur is really her 18-year-old namesake Antoinette – then there are wonderful stories to be told of her in later life, such as how she and her husband restored the family home to its former glory. (The word if here needs to be stressed – I am still in the process of trying to prove one way or the other whether the two Mlles de Saint-Sauveur are the same and until then this is just speculation.)
The Course d’Artistes should be considered a truly impressive race. Impressive for the fact that the first and second riders home that day went on to set Hour records, while a third rider – Joséphine Chabot, who finished fifth, four minutes down on the day – also took a tilt at the record. Think about that for a moment: a star of Charles Zidler’s Hippodrome, a star of Jules Brasseur’s Théâtre des Nouveautés, a star of the Opéra de Paris, all linked to the Hour record. (Today we can kind of go from Scrubs to Wall Street, I suppose.)
The Course d’Artistes should also be considered impressive for drawing a crowd of five thousand. For some perspective on that, remember that the Olympic velodrome in London has a capacity of 6,750 and this at a time when cycling is supposed to be booming in Britain. Pierre Lafitte - L’Écho’s 22-year-old man with a plan, who had been a keen cyclist since his school days and had been a journalist with Véloce Sport before joining L’Écho in 1892 - had wanted to create an event that might rival the Grand Prix (the big flat race of the season, in Longchamp, a horse race that transcended sport and became a major social event) and that size crowd for its first year was quite an achievement. Later years would see 20,000 people in attendance for an event that became more of a gala and less of a race.
Mostly, though, the Course d’Artistes should be thought impressive for the thirty-plus kilometres an hour De Saint-Sauveur and her pacers completed the endeavour in. Given the conditions of the time – the roads, the bikes, the clothing – that’s not bad, eh? The athleticism of those involved should not be doubted. Yes, this was a stunt put on by a newspaper to sell more newspapers. But the riders raised it to a different level. Just like, a decade after that race, the riders of the first Tour de France – a publicity stunt for an ailing newspaper – would raise it to a different level.
The race was widely reported in the French press and much of the reporting offers favourable comment on the athleticism of the riders. In addition to L’Écho de Paris’s own detailed reporting, the cycling journal Le Véloce Sport carried a full page on the race, treating it with respect. The theatrical journal Gil Blas also carried a lengthy, largely fictionalised account of the race under the title ‘Flirting Record’. Other papers to report it included Le Matin, Le Rappel, Le Figaro, Le Petit Parisien, Le Gaulois, L’Intransigent, Le XIXe Siècle, Le Petite Presse, Le Radical, and the Journal des Débats. It’s also commented upon favourably in Claude Pasteur’s book Les Femmes à Bicyclette à la Belle Epoque. Even in the American cycling journal Bearings there was a degree of respect for the sporting side of the endeavour:
A race promoted by Pierre Lafitte, cycling editor of the Echo de Paris, brought in line on Wednesday last thirteen male members of the profession and ten of their fair stage companions. All of them belong to the different Paris theaters. The course was, for the sterner sex, from the Bois-de-Boulogne to Versailles and back; for the ladies, to the St Cloud bridge and back. The first to score on the ladies’ side was Mlle de St. Sauveur, who made the remarkable time of 14:30 for a little less than five miles. The first man in was Mr. Numa, who made the trip in 1:05:00 for over seventeen miles of a hilly course. A fine lunch was spread for the competitors and organizers and it was decided to make this an annual event.
Not everyone, though, saw its sporting value. For the Illustrated American it was just a society column:
I think few Parisien women mount the bicycle without coquettish thoughts. When Mademoiselle Saint-Sauveur, a pretty artiste of the now defunct Hippodrome, did her great road race in the Bois, from the Cascade out to Saint-Cloud and back, the crowd of élégants who thronged the terrace of that chic sylvan café were more interested in her costume than in her speed. The librettist of a midsummer revue took this stand when he made her sing:
Once, in the Hippodrome,
Men loved these limbs to view,
Which now, to win the wheelman’s prize,
Along the roadway flew.
The competitors of this young artiste were a singer from the Opera, and a danseuse. All these knew well the value of smart costumes; and each one in that race of last summer set a style. Mademoiselle Saint-Sauveur wore what seemed a shooting costume of dove-colored cloth – a blouse and knicker bockers, fitting rather snugly. The danseuse, Cléo de Mérode, a really great star of the Opera and the owner of a charming profile, had a plaited skirt and jacket of seal brown. The skirt just touched the knees. She wore high, laced-up shoes.
The Illustrated American’s correspondent goes on for quite a bit more but we’ll stop there and take up his comment about Cléopatra Diane de Mérode. She was a distant scion of the Belgian noble family that eventually gave us Alexandre de Mérode, the man in charge of the IOC’s anti-doping activities throughout the last three decades of the twentieth century. Susan Waller’s recent paper ‘The Corset, the Bicycle and the Hottentot: Alexandre Falguière’s The Dancer and Cléo de Mérode’s Modern Feminine Body’ (for the journal Feminist Modernist Studies) tells us that, at this point, De Mérode was a seventeen-year-old rising star of the Opéra de Paris. She’d started studying dance with them aged seven and four years later was a member of the corps de ballets. In the years to come she would be credited with having invented our modern idea of celebrity culture, by taking control of her own image from about 1894 onwards, choosing how she was portrayed in publicity photographs rather than submitting to the whims of those who photographed her.
Having such a star at a race that can be credited with such a major role in the rise of women’s cycling in France in the 1890s is quite the coup. It is, alas, quite wrong. No other reports of the Course d’Artistes make any reference to De Mérode having been present in the Bois de Boulogne on that Wednesday in June, let alone having taken part in the race.
Is it possible that De Mérode took part under a pseudonym? I put that question to Susan Waller and she doesn’t think it likely. Which leaves us wondering whether the Illustrated American’s contributor was simply confused – maybe De Mérode was there to support colleagues from the Opéra de Paris? – or maybe the whole thing is simply journalistic invention.
To be generous, we know that cycling history is full of colourful but erroneous links to the famous. There’s a biography of the jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt that puts his onetime playing partner Maurice Alexander in the Tour de France, as a rider. This misunderstanding stems from the fact that Alexander, an accordionist, entertained crowds at the Tour, alongside the likes of Yvette Horner. We also have the enduring myth of the aviator Marie Marvingt’s 1908 Tour de France, which may be based on little more than Marvingt having done a tour of France on her bicycle. These things can and often do stem from innocent mistakes. (The irony should be noted that I am making a tentative link between De Saint-Sauveur and a French noble family which, in due course, will doubtlessly be repeated as if it were a verified fact.)
The link to De Mérode is not without value. She herself was photographed in 1894 on a bicycle, while a cartoon from the weekly magazine Le Rire in 1895 places her astride a bike. We know that cycling at this time was fashionable, De Mérode makes abundantly clear just how fashionable it really was.
The era of the high-wheeler – what the French called the Grand Bi – was gone and, with the introduction of the diamond-frame safety and pneumatic tyres, cycling was a relatively easy and pleasant thing to do, for all. It was also a lot easier for women to take on in an era when what they wore was so heavily policed by society’s mores. This is where the history of women’s cycling and the history of men’s cycling are two very, very different stories. For men, getting on a bike was no big deal. Even racing wasn’t a big issue, not unless you made the mistake of acting like a professional, in which case there were differences of opinion. But there is no way that you could consider men getting on bikes to have been a revolutionary activity. And yet that is exactly what it was when women did it. For women these really were revolutionary times and the very idea of women racing bikes was enough to bring some men over in a fit of the vapours. Consider this comment that appeared in the American cycling magazine the Referee in December 1893 and which makes reference to the first three women to set Hour records:
Especially in lady cycling is France ahead of all other countries. I may say it is too far advanced, for the record trials of Mlles Dutrieux, Debatz, Saint Sauveurs, etc, are nothing less than disgraceful.
While De Saint-Sauveur can be credited with having started a revolution in terms of the Hour record, women racing bikes was nothing new in 1893. We generally date the start of women’s racing back to 1868 and a race that was held in Bordeaux in November, six months or so after the Parc Saint-Cloud races. But – perhaps understandably, given the impact of the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War – the sport stalled in France in the 1870s. The take up in Britain wasn’t particularly strong either. But in the United States, women’s racing made a mark, particularly with Louise Armaindo and Elsie von Blumen in the 1880s (the high-wheeler years of the sport) and then in the 1890s (the safety era) with the likes of Tillie Anderson. The stories of those two eras have been told this year in new books by M Ann Hall (Muscle on Wheels – Louise Armaindo and the High-Wheel Racers of Nineteenth-Century America from McGill-Queen’s University Press) and Roger Gilles (Women on the Move – The Forgotten Era of Women’s Bicycle Racing from the University of Nebraska Press) and this is not the place to retell their stories. Simply, what needs to be understood is that women were racing bikes in America in those years. And it drove some men crazy. Especially men who wrote for the main American cycling journals. As an example, consider this story from the League of American Wheelmen’s journal, Bicycling World:
I don’t think anyone has been more enthusiastic over the entry of ladies into cycling than I have, and none have tried harder to encourage them in doing so than myself, but when it comes to a question of woman bestriding an ordinary, and riding round a track for the purpose of being guyed by a curious public, then I want to go on record as voting decidedly in the negative. I had thought that this class of cycling disgrace met its birth and death in the performance of Louise Armaindo, but alas! I was mistaken. On Feb. 11th we are going to have what is billed as a six-day female bicycle race here, the contestants to ride eight hours each day. Mr. Richard K. Fox, the editor of a ‘society journal,’ intends to present the winner of the event with a $500 diamond medal, emblematic of the female bicycle championship of the world. Pittsburg has the distinguished honor of introducing this highly creditable (?) form of sport. It will take many years for the better class of wheelmen to overcome among ladies the stigma that will thus fall upon wheeling, and it is much to be regretted that it should occur just at this time, when so many ladies have had their attention favorably called to cycling as a pastime suitable for their adoption.
If you need to understand what was going on – where the opprobrium was coming from – then another recent book is a good place to look, Kat Jungnickel’s Bikes and Bloomers – Victorian Women Inventors and their Extraordinary Cycle Wear (from Goldsmiths Press, UK, and MIT, US) which explains the politics of clothing and how clothing of the sort that showed a woman’s form – clothing of a type that even hinted at the existence of legs and bosoms – became part of a revolutionary movement that challenged the role of men in society by taking the first steps in demanding equality for women. Clothing of the sort that was needed to ride bikes. And especially needed in you wanted to race.
If you don’t want to have to read a book to understand this, consider two images of that first women’s race in Bordeaux in 1868. On the left the original image that appeared in the French journal Le Monde Illustré and on the right how the image appeared in Harper’s Weekly when it crossed the Atlantic:
For Americans, clothing was an issue. It’s not that it wasn’t an issue in France: look at those riots that preceded De Saint-Sauveur’s first Hour ride, riots which were rooted in what someone was or was not wearing at the annual Bal des Quat’z’Arts. And bear in mind that Paris actually had a law banning women from wearing trousers. But maybe the French were just that little bit less opposed to progress. That law against women wearing trousers was eased in 1892, for women with bicycles. (Oddly, no one got round to rescinding it until five years ago.)
We should probably also bear in mind that, certainly in the cases of De Saint-Sauveur and Debatz, the clothes they wore when racing were not considered as controversial as those donned by, say, Louise Armaindo in the US. De Saint-Sauveur and Debatz were challenging the accepted norms, but they were doing so within limits that many found acceptable.
The point here is that the history of the sport of cycling and the history of people riding bicycles are more obviously linked when it comes to telling the story of women’s racing than when it comes to telling the story of men’s racing. Having someone like Cléo de Mérode on a bicycle mattered. The society women of that time who emulated her and others like her – riding their bicycles in the Bois de Boulogne and organising informal races among one and other – mattered. They would have been fundamental to L’Écho de Paris being able to find a cadre of stars of Parisian theatre capable of successfully pulling off a coup like the Course d’Artistes. That three of those stars then went on to take on the Hour record and help write the history of the sport of women’s cycling tells us just how much women like Cléo de Mérode mattered.
Cycling, then, was chic, which alone may help to explain some of the success of the Course d’Artistes. And much of what followed could be credited to good timing: the bicycle industry was entering a boom period as the safety replaced the high-wheeler and the market extended its reach from the upper classes down into the middle, and expanded its reach from primarily a male consumer base to a more mixed one. Some of those who sought to be big players in that industry put their marketing muscle behind women’s racing, helping to make what followed possible. But while it is important to remember that the conditions had to be right, we should never lose sight of the fact that, ultimately, what followed was down to the riders being able to deliver the goods, to the riders pushing the Hour record up and up and up.
Why De Saint-Sauveur took a tilt at the record – and why she chose to take a tilt at the unpaced record rather than the paced – is not clear but perhaps the reason was as simple as it was for Henri Desgrange two months before: no one else had done it, so whatever she did, it was going to be a record. It was going to be newsworthy.
De Saint-Sauveur’s record ride happened about three weeks after the Course d’Artistes. A week after her record ride, De Saint-Sauveur and the 17-year-old Renée Debatz – the star of the Théâtre des Nouveautés who had finished a close(ish) second in the Bois de Boulogne – had at one and other on the track of the Buffalo, a twenty-five kilometre race to decide who should have the bragging rights. Pacing was provided by Lamberjack (who provided some of the pace at the Course d’Artistes) and Georges Cassignard (a nineteen-year-old rising talent who already had a couple of French championship titles to his name, as well as the kilometre record, but would be dead before the year was out), with both pacers leaving the track at four laps to go.
Approaching the bell lap, De Saint-Sauveur had a slight lead but, come the bell, made an all too familiar error: she sat up and slowed down, thinking the race won. When Debatz passed her she realised her error and gave chase. Debatz was almost caught but, on the last turn of the Buffalo’s track, De Saint-Sauveur’s machine slipped from under her and she went down. This was a repeat, with roles reversed, of the end of the Course d’Artistes, where Debatz had been leading approaching the finish only to collide with her pacers and fall, ceding victory to De Saint-Sauveur. Now it was Debatz who profited from her rival’s misfortune.
Within a month of that victory, Debatz took De Saint-Sauveur’s Hour record from her, adding just over two thousand metres to bring it up to 28.019 kilometres. As with the record she bettered, Debatz’s ride was not without incident. A puncture after sixty laps – about forty minutes into the ride – required a change of machine, so Debatz took the opportunity to grab a drink before remounting. But the saddle on the new machine was too high and so, eight laps later, she was offered yet another bike. This time the saddle was too low, so Debatz continued on the machine she had.
De Saint-Sauveur’s record was well and truly beaten and thereafter the first woman of the Hour fades from the story. In August she finished second in another race organised by L’Écho de Pairs, a twenty kilometre championnat des cycling ladies in Cabourg, Normandy. There Lydie Schless (who rode under the name Lydie) finished third and Jeanne de Brémont (who finished fourth in the Course d’Artistes) finished sixth. Reports that De Saint-Sauveur and Lydie – who we will be hearing from again in due course in connection with the Hour record – had agreed to go head-to-head were denied. After that, nothing much is heard from De Saint-Sauveur.
Debatz, on the other hand, went from success to success. After the race in the Bois de Boulogne she had thrown down the gauntlet, challenging all comers to come and have a go if they thought they were hard enough. Now, having taken De Saint-Sauveur’s unpaced record the next thing on her agenda ought to have been to set a record for the paced Hour. She had shown well behind pacers at both the Course d’Artistes in the Bois de Boulogne and in her twenty-five kilometre race against De Saint-Sauveur in the Buffalo. But before she could do that Hélène Dutrieu entered the story.
We know very little about Renée Debatz, other than that she had been a performer in the Théâtre des Nouveautés before bursting onto the cycling scene. What became of her after her brief cycling career is not known. We know even less about De Saint-Sauveur, whose first name remains a mystery. About Hélène Dutrieu, on the other hand, we know a lot.
Born in 1877 in Tournai, Belgium, Dutrieu was the daughter of an officer in the Belgian army. (As with Henri Desgrange, whose name was often written as Desgranges in the 1890s, the plural form of Dutrieu is also frequently used, Dutrieux.) At some stage the family moved to the suburbs of Lille, in northern France, where the father got involved in the textile industry, making and selling dyes. Her older brother Eugène was a cyclist, his name occasionally featuring in despatches and she’s said to have left school aged fourteen – 1891 or so – in order to find her own way in the world and ended up following in his wheel tracks. And then well and truly gapping him.
We first meet Dutrieu on the last Sunday of August 1893 when there were two different attempts on the Hour record. In Paris, on the road around Lake Daumesnil in the Bois de Vincennes, Emilienne de Perceval had said she intended to set a new record. How she did is not known. The other record attempt happened on the 400 metre track of the Vélodrome Lillois and was an unambiguous success, with Dutrieu - paced by her brother and MG Dupont - establishing a paced Hour record of 31.413 kilometres. She had just turned sixteen.
The story then gets a bit confusing when, in September 1893, Debatz again took to the Buffalo’s track and – with Henri Desgrange among the members of her pacing team, as well as Louvet and Rudeaux, and a tandem piloted by Masi-Vigneaux – bettered that distance, with 32.231 kilometres. Some reports of this ride claim that Dutrieu had also set an earlier paced record of 31.200 kilometres, in addition to the 31.413 she set in August. When that was done is not known. Whether it was really done is not known. It could be an error, but if it is an error it’s an error that was repeated in several reports.
Confusing the issue some more is the fact that, heretofore, Dutrieu has generally been believed to have set the first women’s Hour record, with De Saint-Sauveur and the others not even being mentioned in passing. This may arise from a document to be found on the Belgian cycling federation’s website which offers an incomplete list of holders of the women’s Hour record, with Dutrieu’s name top of the list and De Saint-Sauveur’s completely absent. Or it may arise from a claim Ross D Petty made in a paper he delivered to the International Cycling History Conference in 1996, ‘Women and the Wheel,’ and which William Fotheringham repeated in his wiki-like compendium of cycling facts, factoids, and trivia, Cyclopedia.
We know from Dutrieu herself that she did not set the first record. In a 1903 interview she claimed that it was news of the record set by De Saint-Sauveur - who the interviewer refers to as “noblesse de piste”, track nobility - that encouraged her to tackle the Hour:
We read assiduously, my brothers and I, the cycling newspapers. One day, one of those journals brought us this big news that women themselves were setting records. The day before, in Paris, Mademoiselle de Saint-Sauveur covered in the hour a little over twenty-eight kilometres. ‘I bet you can do a lot better,’ my eldest brother told me. I trained for almost a week and I tried to beat the Paris record. I succeeded in my attempt and I carried this record to thirty kilometres.
Before Debatz had got around to taking the paced record away from Dutrieu and reasserting her top dog status, two attempts had been made on the unpaced record. The first was by Joséphine Chabot, a veteran of the Course d’Artistes. Riding in Reims in October 1893 she could only manage 22.375 kilometres, quite a ways off the record. And then there was Lydie - who we met at the Cabourg race De Saint-Sauveur finished second in - who, on the same day Debatz took her record back from Dutrieu, was also on the track in the Buffalo, chasing the unpaced Hour record. Lydie managed a distance of 27.145 kilometres, or 874 metres short of the record, in conditions far from favourable for a record attempt: drenching rain. (The following month Lydie bagged the 100 kilometres record in a time of four hours and nineteen minutes.) These two women’s attempts at breaking the Hour record may have failed but the fact that they took place at all is a sign of the level of interest there was in this record at that time.
Dutrieu took just two weeks to come back at Debatz for taking her record. In October 1893, in her local vélodrome in Lille, she added 761 metres to Debatz’s unpaced record, bringing it up to 28.780 kilometres. And then, four days later, she took the paced record back, adding 869 metres, taking it up to 33.100 kilometres.
It was October 1894 before Debatz took the paced Hour record back. But in the meanwhile a lot was going on with regard to the Hour record.
Down in the French Basque country, a Mme Loïs, from Dax, was reported to have added 75 metres to Dutrieu’s paced record, in May 1894, in front of a crowd of 3,000 spectators in Bayonne’s Vélodrome des Glacis. So far I have found just one report of this ride, in Le Petit Parisien, and it may be that that report is wrong, for when Debatz reclaimed the paced Hour record in October she was credited with having beaten Dutrieu’s record, not that of Loïs.
Before that ride in Bayonne, there had been talk from the famed trainer Choppy Warburton that he had found a new star of the stage capable of matching Debatz – a Mlle Gilberte, described in some reports as “the charming opera artist” – and that she was capable of taking on the Hour record. No report of her ever having done so has yet been found.
And three months after Loïs, in August, Gabrielle Eteogella, a star rider of the time, took a tilt at the record, but fell a kilometre and a half short, only registering 31.620 kilometres.
For Debatz, 1894 had offered more than just the Hour record, as she was now fully a part of the Gladiator ‘team’. And this brought her into the orbit of Choppy Warburton.
Cycling at this time didn’t quite have teams. Rather it was a loose association of riders riding for different manufacturers. But some manufacturers put more money into the sport than others. And one area in particular that took a lot of money was pacing. Two examples to give you an idea of how much more money. The first is a photograph of the pacing team provided by the tyre manufacturer Dunlop:
The second is statistics: at a track meet in Bordeaux’s Vélodrome du Parc in October 1894 (Oct 28-Nov 3, a few days after Debatz took her Hour record back) the Gladiators finished the week’s racing with a dozen major and more than 200 intermediate records, including yet another new Hour record for Debatz. That level of dominance does not come cheap.
|plus all records 1-35 kms
|plus all records 2-9 kms
|1 Mile (flying start, Trike)
|1 Mile (standing start, Trike)
|Excel + Lambrechts
|333 metres (Trike)
|plus all records 2-39 kms
|plus all records 51-99 kms
|1 Kilometre (flying start)
|Antony + Lambrechts
|10 Kilometres (Tandem)
|plus all records 2-9 kms
|Laugt, Barden + Guicheney
|plus all records 1-44 kms
|plus all record 11-49 kms
|All records men, paced, standing start, bicycle unless otherwise stated
Pacing for both of Debatz’s October records came from a pair of tandems (piloted by Linton-Michael and Coquelle-Barden in the second attempt and Lost-Clérel and Fouaneau-Ratineau in the first), a trike (Antony, both records), and solo riders (Favier in the second attempt, Excel and Bauby in the first). The second of the two records was set in far from ideal conditions, with the day wet and windy. As with many reports of Hour attempts even today, The People Who Know – in this case a personage no less than Choppy Warburton – knew that, had the conditions been ideal, Debatz could have done even better, with Warburton even raising the prospect of her cracking forty kilometres.
Shortly after Debatz’s two October records, Mlle Dedaele - Dedacle in the reports - took a tilt at the paced record in Brussels, at the Vélodrome d’Hiver. Whereas all the other records and attempts had taken place out of doors, the Vél d’Hiv in Brussels was an indoor velodrome. The advantage that offered wasn’t enough to get her over the line and she could only manage 32.966 kilometres, nearly three kilometres short of the required distance.
In December 1894 Dutrieu responded to Debatz’s two October records and added 2,800 metres to the paced record, bringing it up to 38.746 kilometres. Like Dedaele in October, she too took to the indoor track of the Vél d’Hiv in Brussels. Unlike Dedaele, the advantage served her well.
As if to demonstrate that it wasn’t all down to the venue, nine months later, in September 1895, Dutrieu was able to add another 444 metres to her paced record in Roubaix, which was another outdoor track, pushing the record up to 39.190 kilometres.
Debatz had no response. But Amélie le Gall, who rode under the mononym Lisette, did. Although it took a year to come. A year during which the worlds of American and French women’s cycling collided in London, in Westminster’s Royal Aquarium. Sheila Hanlon’s account of those November 1895 races explains their importance, especially as far as the British are concerned. Lisette, a rising star at the time, could only manage second place in the main attraction in London, the six day race, behind local hero Monica Harwood.
As those Royal Aquarium races indicate, there was, obviously, more to women’s cycling than the Hour record. While women’s racing lacked the depth of men’s racing, in terms of the number of riders, it was just as broad. For the record hunters you could go from a kilometre and less to a hundred kilometres and more. Place to place records were available. Match races pitting the star riders of the moment against another were organised. There were mixed tandem races and sometimes the women and the men went one on one, such as when Lisette took on Jimmy Michael or Albert Champion. And the sport had Championship races.
Or, the sport had races billing themselves as Championship races. Despite the existence of the International Cycling Association, the precursor of today’s UCI, what was happening in the world of women’s racing was happening without the imprimatur of the governing body. So anyone could organise a Championship race, pretty much the way everyone had been organising Championship races for men in the years before the creation of the ICA. In this fashion, both Hélène Dutrieu and Lisette were able to claim to be World Champions in 1896.
Lisette was another star of the Gladiator ‘team’ – and another who came into the orbit of Choppy Warburton, as had Debatz and Dutrieu and several other members of the women’s peloton – and (if we are to believe the legend) she is everything we want a cyclist to be: a Breton farmer. The myth has it that she was farming sheep in Brittany when she was wooed and wed. Here’s how the story appeared, much handed down and with added Blarney, in Sporting Life in 1895:
Mademoiselle Lisette Le Gall, according to the ‘Irish Cyclist,’ was a shepherdess in Brittany. She tended her flocks on the margin of a fine, broad highway, along which scorchers from the far-off towns used often to fly. Lisette looked and longed; but shepherdessing, though a poetical occupation, is not sufficiently money-making to buy bicycles for its followers; and Lisette had to content herself with ‘Shanks’ mare.’ One day, however, a flying wheelman paused for a little flirtation with the pretty shepherdess, and discovered her longings. They had a pleasant conversation, and the wheelman promised to bring Lisette a machine next time he came to Brittany. He redeemed his promise very shortly, and offered the fair maiden his hand and heart, together with the bicycle. Lisette accepted the offer; and she has since taken to record-breaking, under her husband’s care. She lately rode 100 kilometres (about 60 miles) on the road in 4h 31m. This, it seems, is the female record for Brittany. Truly a romantic story.
In other versions of the myth Lisette is orphaned in Paris and rescued from a hellish existence in a factory by her future husband. In another, she’s descended from French royalty (as was, it should be noted, Antoinette de Saint-Sauveur).
She herself said that she was born to a farming family in the town of Quintin, on Brittany’s Côtes-du-Nord, and that she was a sickly youth, suffering from fainting fits until a doctor suggested she try cycling. That would have been about 1893. In 1894 she features in several race reports, her most notable success being when in August she became French champion for 100 kilometres, with a time of three hours twenty-nine minutes. One of her most famous races took place in February 1896, when Henri Desgrange arranged for her to race against the Welsh record-breaker Jimmy Michael over fifty kilometres. She was well beaten.
When the 25-year-old Lisette did turn her attentions to the Hour record, in September 1896, she took to the track of the Buffalo. With pacing from two teams of quadruplettes she added 4,271 metres to the paced Hour record and pushed it out to 43.461 kilometres.
In November Dutrieu tried to respond to Lisette’s paced Hour record but fell short. She bettered her own best distance with 41.120 kilometres in Lille but still missed out on the record by more than two kilometres. Lisette had put the record on a shelf, out of reach.
So far out of reach had Lisette put the paced record, in fact, that the next Hour ride we get was a fresh unpaced record, this time by Louise Roger, another rising star of the sport. Roger was riding in the spiritual home of the Hour, the Buffalo, when, in October 1897, she added 5,906 metres to the unpaced record last set by Dutrieu in October 1893, taking it out to 34.684 kilometres.
In the five years that had elapsed since the unpaced record was lest set, much had changed, as the near six kilometres Roger stuffed on the record attests. The bikes had improved, the riders’ preparation had improved. But an even bigger change was in attitudes, as seen in what the riders wore. When De Saint-Sauveur and Debatz first fired the fuse in 1893 they were expected to look a particular way, for their on-the-bike clothes to look something like those worn off. Now those who followed were looking more like athletes, with form-fitting clothing. Albeit form-fitting clothing that was still meant to stop people getting a flesh of flesh, even of an uncovered arm.
What happened to the record after this brief era of French dominance is a story for another day. As far as I can tell, Lisette’s paced record of 43.461 kilometres set in September 1896 and Roger’s unpaced record of 34.684 kilometres set in October 1897 survived to the end of the century and beyond.
If women had been racing bikes since at least that race in Bordeaux in 1868 why did it take a quarter of a century before a woman set an Hour record? Men’s Hour records can be dated back to somewhere between 1870 and 1876 – depending on which apocryphal record you want to take as your Year Zero, Johnson, Moore, or Dodds – where are the comparable achievements from the women who we know were racing in those years?
First of all, we have to accept that, in reality, the Hour record didn’t become a thing until twenty miles in an hour looked to be achievable, so that means that, for the men, the real starting point for the Hour is John Keen in 1876. The three earlier ‘records’ were estimated long after the fact based on distances covered in longer races, they were not attempts to set records for the Hour. They really should only be considered accidental, incidental Hours.
When did women start going further than twenty miles in an Hour? Back in the 1880s we know that Louise Armaindo was reported to be knocking off fourteen and fifteen miles in an hour during races on an ordinary. Using the same logic that retrospectively gave Hour records to men like Johnson, Moore, and Dodds, we could, if we tried, proclaim Armaindo as a holder of the Hour record. We could probably create several other Hour record holders too, if we tried. But would they count? Do Dodds, Moore, and Johnson’s retrospective Hours really count as Hour records, in your opinion?
American women were knocking off twenty miles and more in an hour in races in the 1890s. So why were they not taking on the Hour, given its popularity in France? There seems to have been a lack of interest, even despite the records set by Rhodes and Rowe in the 1880s on high-wheelers. As an example of how little interest, Roger Gilles (Women on the Move) tells a story about Tillie Anderson knocking off 25 miles (40.234 kilometres) in New Orleans, with pacing, in August 1898, covering the distance in 57’44.6”. And simply stopping when the distance record had been done. She showed no interest in plugging on for another two-and-a-quarter minutes and a probable distance of about forty-one kilometres in an Hour. That would still have been short of Lisette’s 43.461 kilometres set in October 1896 but would likely have counted as an American record. With other records it would be normal to keep pushing on if something was achievable with a little extra effort. But there simply doesn’t seem to have been much by way of interest in American cycling circles to merit pushing on.
Another issue to consider here is that pacing played a major part in the record. In October 1901 the British rider Monica Harwood – a veteran of the races in the Royal Aquarium in 1895 – took her personal best for the Hour up to 24 miles 780 yards (39.337 kilometres), riding on the track in Putney. She was paced by tandems, which is pretty old school for 1901. Maybe the American and British riders simply didn’t have the same resources behind them as their French counterparts.
Eventually, though, an Anglosphere rider did step up to the plate: in July 1902 the American sensation Lottie Brandon tore down the shelf Lisette had left the paced Hour record on in 1896 and built a new one that may still be standing today: 33 miles and 715 yards (53.762 kilometres), an astonishing 10,301 metres further than Lisette had gone six years before. How had Brandon done it? By riding behind a motorcycle equipped with a wind-shield.
You could try arguing that this is against UCI rules. But there you’d be on a hiding to nothing: the UCI didn’t let women have an Hour record until 1955, when Tamara Novikova covered a distance of 38.173 kilometres in Irkutsk, without pacers. By then the women’s unpaced Hour record had gone through a new phase of tit-for-tat record breaking as Elyane Bonneau and Jeannine Lemaire butted heads at the end of the 1940s and into the 1950s and pushed it ever higher, finally stopping in 1952 at 39.735 kilometres. Or 1,562 metres further than the first Hour record to be officially recognised by the gentlemen who govern cycling. Sometimes, it seems, you have to go backwards in order to go forwards.
It’s 125 years now since the women’s Hour record was dreamed into being, 125 years since De Saint-Sauveur first set an Hour record for women. In that century and a quarter progress within women’s cycling has sometimes seemed glacial, occasionally receding. A women’s Tour de France came (in 1955 with Jean Leulliot’s first Tour Fém), went, came back (with Félix Lévitan’s Tour Fém), got replaced (with Pierre Boué’s Tour Fém), went away again before once more coming back (with Christian Prudhomme’s ersatz Tour Fém).
The Hour record, on the other hand, while it’s had its fallow years – just like the men’s record – it’s never disappeared. From its roots in the Buffalo in Paris it burst across frontiers. All across Europe riders have risen to its challenge. American and Australian riders have risen to its challenge. Since that Friday evening in July of 1893 the women’s Hour record has been a constant, challenging the best riders of their day to see if they could add their names to its roll of honour. A hundred and twenty-five years after De Saint-Sauveur took to the track, the record she inaugurated is still going strong, still commanding respect. Pas mal, hein?
If you’re interested in learning more about this era of women’s cycling, a number of recently published books are worth reading.
Kat Jungnickel’s Bikes and Bloomers – Victorian Women Inventors and their Extraordinary Cycle Wear from Goldsmiths Press (UK) and MIT (US) looks at the politics of the clothing worn by female cyclists in the 1890s.
M Ann Hall’s Muscle on Wheels – Louise Armaindo and the High-Wheel Racers of Nineteenth-Century America from McGill-Queen’s University Press tells the story of women’s high-wheel racing in North America in the 1880s and early 1890s, through the prism of Louise Armaindo.
Roger Gilles’s Women on the Move – The Forgotten Era of Women’s Bicycle Racing from the University of Nebraska Press looks at the period between 1895 and 1902 from an American angle, when riders such as Tillie Anderson, Lizzie Glaw, and Dottie Farnsworth were stars of the sport.
Isabel Best’s Queens of Pain – Legends and Rebels of Cycling from Rapha Editions in association with Bluetrain Publishing takes a long look at the history of women’s cycling by telling stories of some of the women who made that history and includes some of the riders who have featured here, including Hélène Dutrieu.
On a more general level, a couple of older books are worth considering if much of this is new to you. Sue Macy’s Wheels of Change - How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way) offers a solid introduction to the story of women on bikes. And Emily June Street’s cycling steam-punk novel The Velocipede Races offers an entertaining, fictionalised take on many of the issues that faced women racing bikes at the end of the nineteenth century.
Previous accounts of the Hour record’s history (‘The Penny-Hour – The Last Hour Record to be Set on a High-Wheeler’ and ‘The First Hours – The Hour Record Before Henri Desgrange’) carry recommendations of books for those looking to understand where men’s cycling was at in this period.
To Isabel Best, Mike Fishpool, Ann Hall, Roger Gilles, Dag Hammar, and Susan Waller who all took the time to answer questions and point me in different directions while I was researching this: go raibh mile maith agat.